The Mystery of Pliny’s Silphium

In today’s Story from the Museum Floor Fang from the Visitor Team looks into the true identity of the mysterious Silphium mentioned in Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ and what uses it may have had.

Have a look at our curators’ blogs to find out more about our Archaeology and Botany collections.

One of the most precious gifts of nature

Nature Through Roman Eyes, the current temporary exhibition at the Manchester Museum, explores Roman natural history through the writings of Pliny the Elder in his Natural History.

This voluminous ancient encyclopaedia consists of no less than 37 books, 16 of which are devoted to botany. About 900 plants were recorded by Pliny, and in his eyes, there was one “remarkably important plant” he called “one of the most precious gifts of Nature to man.” That plant was Silphium.

Pliny the Elder and the first volume of his ‘Natural History’, translated by Philemon Holland (1635) and currently displayed in the exhibition “Nature through Roman Eyes”, loan courtesy of the University of Manchester.

Identity and extinction?

Silphium? What is Silphium? Wikipedia notes that it is also known as silphion, laserwort or laser. Are you even more confused now? I know I am! So, what on earth is Silphium?

Well, the truth is that nobody knows exactly, with even botanists being unable to clearly identify the plant. However, it is commonly believed to belong to be an extinct species of the genus Ferula, in the family of Apiaceae (commonly known as the celery, carrot and parsley family), although the currently extant plants Ferula tingitana, Ferula narthex, and some “giant fennel” varieties have been suggested as possible identities. From this we can imagine a picture of silphium from its still-extant relatives, for example, Ferula narthex.

 

Left: Ferula narthex growing in the wild (source). Right: A botanical illustration of Ferula narthex, currently displayed in the Nature through Roman Eyes exhibition at Manchester Museum.

Ferula foetida, a species of “Giant Fennel”, also thought to be in the same genus as silphium, and to have similar properties, has been used as a cheaper substitute (commonly known as ‘asafoetida’) for that historically important plant.

 

Right: botanical illustration of Ferula foetida (©Franz Eugen Köhler). Left: a jar of Ferula foetida resin, part of the Materia Medica collection, Manchester Museum.

More intriguingly, is it possible that silphium has really vanished from the earth? Conservation Biology published a paper, Pliny the Elder’s Silphium: First Recorded Species Extinction, in which Ken Parejko concluded that “because we cannot even accurately identify the plant we cannot know for certain whether it is extinct.”

What is the possible cause of silphium’s supposed extinction? Again, it is not entirely known, however there is some speculation. Maybe farmers let their sheep and cattle over-graze the silphium habitat (perhaps to produce special flavoured meat), or humans might have over-harvested it for food, condiments, perfume ingredients or, most importantly, medicine.

According to Pliny, Silphium only grew wild in a limited area of Cyrenaica (in present-day eastern Libya), and all attempts to cultivate it failed. Demand for silphium became overwhelming, but availability remained quite restricted. Also, natural climate change led to the increased desertification of the region. All these factors may have led to its extinction sometime in the 3rd to 2nd century BC. Pliny recorded that the last stalk of it was allegedly given to the Emperor Nero. So, silphium’s identity remains mysterious to this day, but why was it that Pliny considered it to be “one of the most precious gifts of Nature to man”, and just what is the evidence?

The “Remarkably important plant”

Silphium was important in antiquity, as shown by the fact that both the ancient Egyptian and Minoan civilisations had specific signs that have been interpreted as representing the plant. The Romans mentioned silphium in poems or songs, and valued its weight in silver coins or even gold! The valuable product of the plant was its resin, called laser. Julius Caesar was said to have stored 1500 pounds of laser in the Roman treasury, while the Emperor Augustus ordered that all silphium and laser be sent to Rome as tribute.

Its multiple uses, especially medicinally, combined with its scarcity, made silphium the most valuable spice in the world. Trading in silphium is said to have made the ancient north African Cyrene the richest city on the continent for a time.

FANG3A plate Cyrene depicting the weighing and loading up silphium shipments. Wellcome Images L0002417 (Source)

It was so crucial to the Cyrenian economy that most of their coins have images of the plant on them. Below are some examples from Manchester Museum’s numismatic collection.

fang3A group of silver coins of Cyrene, depicting silphium – both plants and seeds (actually fruits), currently displayed in the exhibition ‘Nature through Roman Eyes’, Manchester Museum.

Birth control and a symbol of love

Silphium was used by the Romans as a cure-all to treat many kinds of maladies. Well, when you search the internet for the word ‘silphium’, among the top results are ‘Silphium, the ancient contraceptive herb driven to extinction’, ‘Did the Romans drive a birth-control plant to extinction?’ and ‘The Birth Control of Yesteryear’.

The Romans used silphium as a contraceptive and abortifacient, with a suggested dose “the size of a chick-pea” taken once a month, both to prevent conception and “destroy any already existing.” It was probably the first effective birth control method in the western world. The Roman poet Catullus wrote that he wanted to have as many kisses with his beloved “as the number of Libyan sands that lie in silphium-bearing Cyrene”. Some people even interpreted silphium’s use as a treatment for mental illness, desribed as the “madness” of love.

Luckily, it seems that the ancient Roman who could afford it could enjoy love without worrying about pregnancy. Modern research actually backs this up to an extent, showing that many species in the parsley family, such as wild carrot, do have some contraceptive properties. Many people blamed silphium’s extinction on the crazy, love-driven demand for and over-collection of this plant.

Thinking about connections between birth control and ancient plants, let’s not forget the famous palaeobotanist and pioneer of birth control, Marie Stopes (1880-1958), the first female academic of the University of Manchester. She did research and gave lectures on Palaeobotany and wrote a seminal book Ancient Plants. She campaigned for women’s rights and founded the first birth control clinic in Britain. If it had still been available, I wonder whether she would have recommended silphium for use in her birth control clinics?

Blue plaque commemorating Marie Stopes at the University of Manchester, and Marie Stopes in the laboratory, around 1904 (Source: Marie Stopes International).

We all know that the heart is a symbol of romance and love. But did you know that the botanical symbolism of the heart shape lies with the silphium plant?

Firstly, its birth control usage connects silphium with sexuality and love. Further, its heart-shaped seeds are thought to have been the original inspiration for the Heart Symbol of love recognised throughout the world.

Below is an illustration of a heart-shaped mericarp fruit from heracleum sphondylium, another plant belonging to the Parsley family. And Manchester Museum’s own silver coin from Cyrene (570-480 BC) bears images of silphium seeds that are strongly reminiscent of the heart symbol.

 

Left: illustration of Heracleum sphondylium (source). Right: a depiction of the same fruit on a silver Roman coin from Cyrene in our current ‘Nature Through Roman Eyes exhibition’.

Silphium as a plant seems to be extinct, but as the heart symbol of love lives on even today it could be considered as having eternal life!

A renaissance of sylphium

The true identity of silphium may be lost in time, but silphium itself is not completely forgotten, and still resonates down through the ages. Research continues on silphium’s analogue plants, like Ferula narthex, Ferula heuffelii etc., to investigate both their antimicrobial and anti-carcinogenic effects.

Serendipitously, I came across a modern Swedish brand of perfume called “Silphium” by the Stockholm company Stora Skuggan. Indeed, in antiquity perfumes were made from the yellow flowers of the silphium plant.

fang8The perfume named ‘Silphium’ by Stora Skuggan.

“Our rendition of this historical plant is created by researching surviving assumed relatives of Silphium, using aromachemicals to create an accord that we feel represents what descriptions remain.”

– Stora Skuggan

Another advert claims “While the eponymous accord remains a mystery, the overall effect of Silphium is thrilling. Spicy and searingly bright, it alights upon skin and makes us sparkle.”

Perhaps a little too imaginative, but I thought the design of the bottle was very creative! The ball-shaped, yellow stopper appear to resemble the sun, and legend recalls that silphium was a gift from the sun god Apollo

If you would like to see the precious and extinct plant Silphium, please visit our “Nature through Roman Eyes” exhibition, open until 30th October 2018. #MMPliny

Fang Zong

To find out more about Archaeology at Manchester Museum, have a look at the blog Ancient Worlds Manchester by Bryan Sitch (Deputy Head of Collections and Curator of Archaeology). And for more about our Botany Collection, check out the posts on Herbology Manchester by Dr Rachel Webster (Curator of Botany) and Lindsey Loughtman (Curatorial Assistant, Botany).

Further Reading:
Roman Herbal Medicine
Silphium: First Recorded Species Extinction (research paper 2003)
Silphium, the ancient contraceptive herb driven to extinction
The birth control of yesteryear…
The origin of the heart symbol
Antimicrobial and Cytotoxic Activity of Extracts of Ferula heuffelii (research paper 2015)

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